International Papers

Trouble in Paradise

The international press watches Fiji’s slow-motion coup.

After repeated threats and a protracted buildup, Commodore Frank Bainimarama finally seized control of Fiji’s government this week, suspending civil liberties, claiming presidential powers for himself, and deposing Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.  Bainimarama’s troops surrounded parliament and brought an abrupt end to debate in the Senate; they set up checkpoints across the capital city of Suva and imposed restrictions on local media. Not surprisingly, the international press was virtually unanimous in deploring the coup. They also largely agreed on the motivations for the takeover: Bainimarama objects to Prime Minister Qarase’s plan to grant amnesty to those involved in a coup attempt that the military leader helped to quash in 2000.

The nation’s largest paper, Fiji Times,and the Fiji Daily Post both posted notices that they had suspended print publication due to military censorship. But later on Wednesday, the Fiji Times Web site announced that the military had “allowed Fiji Times Limited to resume publication without any interference from soldiers.” An online editorial angrily observed: “It does not take someone with a law degree to see that the military is doing things the wrong and illegal way. And someone has to eventually answer for that in a court of law.” In its online edition, Fiji Daily Post commented, “God bless Fiji indeed, because Bainimarama has clearly cursed it.”

The takeover prompted quick responses from around the globe—perhaps because the meandering path to the coup offered plenty of time for policy-makers to plot strategy. (Bainimarama shifted into neutral last Friday so he could watch the army and the police clash on the rugby field rather than in the streets.) Both the United States and Britain have cut aid to the Pacific island nation in reaction; Fiji will likely be suspended from the Commonwealth this week. Australia and New Zealand have announced travel bans and suspension of defense-cooperation programs and have ships standing by to evacuate nationals in Fiji, should the “bloodless coup” take a violent turn.

Meanwhile, around the world, puzzled editorialists attempted to explain Bainimarama’s unconstitutional behavior. Britain’s Guardian observed:

Cmdr Bainimarama’s very public beef was that the prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, was corrupt, populist and far too lenient towards the plotters who struck in 2000 under George Speight, now serving a prison sentence for treason: their unashamedly racist goal was to depose the first Indian prime minister in favour of indigenous Fijians. So a benign interpretation of this coup would be that the military had no choice but to break the law, as it certainly has done, to keep the enemies of Fiji’s multicultural democracy safely behind bars.

But “[e]ven if Fiji’s neighbours privately agreed with this view, they could hardly condone the overthrow of a multi-party government elected last May with a large majority.”

Closer to Fiji, the Wellington, New Zealand, Dominion Post pondered Bainimarama’s psyche, with less charitable results:

Last week, Fiji’s Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, said publicly that he believed military commander Frank Bainimarama was deranged. … It was a cruel assessment. But as the commodore doggedly pursues his aim of bloodlessly overthrowing the legitimate government of his island nation in order to “clean up corruption”, it is hard to define his actions another way. …The consequences of the military takeover in Fiji are serious and stark. … Hundreds of millions of dollars in United States and European aid will be withdrawn, government-to-government aid from Wellington and Canberra will probably be frozen, and tourism, the pivot on which Fiji’s economy turns, is drying up. Why would Commodore Bainimarama choose to expose his fellow Fijians to such travail? It makes no sense—unless, of course, he is unwell, as Mr Qarese has intimated, or he felt he’d painted himself into a corner from which he saw no escape, bar pressing on.

The Australian, on the other hand, looked beyond Bainimarama’s mental health to the larger South Pacific picture and saw trouble brewing across the region:

East Timor is in disarray after the unrest of earlier this year. The Solomon Islands is an all-but-failed state, having seen its prime minister ousted earlier this year. … And in an indication that political turmoil is spreading from Melanesia to Polynesia, pro-democracy riots in Tonga last month left much of that island nation’s capital in ruins and cost the lives of eight people.

The editorial added that the prospect of “an archipelago of failed states” demands more effective Australian involvement in the region.

The Sydney Morning Herald noted that visitors, who generally frequent resorts far from the capital city, have faced no danger during the coup. But “international sanctions and travel warnings … will affect the tourist flow for an uncertain period, and those that will suffer will be the ethnic Fijians who staff the hotels and make the souvenirs,” wrote Hamish McDonald, the Herald’s Asia-Pacific editor. The 2000 coup dealt a severe blow to Fiji’s economy and “led to the emigration of 120,000 people, mostly ethnic Indians, who took with them a large part of the economy’s skill base. … More will now follow.”

What lies ahead for Fiji? More children growing up without the education they might have had, perhaps more malnutrition, more crime and drug taking among unemployed youth, more squatters on the urban fringes.Anyone who thinks of Fiji’s potential, lost in political bitterness, should weep.